By Jon Cassidy | Watchdog.org
HOUSTON — By reputation, the University of Texas School of Law is practically the Harvard of the Southwest.
By the quality of some of the students it lets in, however, UT Law would have a hard time beating West Amarillo Upstairs Law College.
Dozens of students admitted to UT Law in recent years have scores on the Law School Admissions Test, or LSAT, that are below the standards of the lowest ranked law schools in the country, a Watchdog.org investigation into admissions favoritism has found.
The LSAT is scored on a scale of 120-180. UT Law students get a median score of 167, according to the 2014 US News survey, and the great majority of the class scores a 160 or better.
Even a score in the 170s with a near-perfect grade point average is no guarantee of admission, as this roster of self-reported scores for UT applicants from lawschoolnumbers.com makes clear. (Those applications are worth skimming for anybody unfamiliar with UT Law’s standards.)
Most lower tier law schools nationwide accept students with LSAT scores in the 150s.
With a score below 150, you’re something of a longshot even at the lowest ranked law schools in the country.
The University of La Verne College of Law in California, for example, came in dead last in the peer reputation survey on the 2013 US News rankings of accredited law schools, yet three-quarters of its students scored a 150 or better.
In recent years, UT Law has admitted students not just with LSATs in the 140s, but with scores as low as 138, 137, 136, even 128. Several of them were rejected by other Texas law schools of lesser reputation.
A 128 is down at the very bottom 1 percent of test-takers nationwide. It means the person got less than a quarter of the answers correct.
State Sen. Dan Patrick called for an investigation into admissions favoritism at UT Law earlier this week.
“As a parent or grandparent, if your son or grandson or daughter or granddaughter has the LSAT scores to get in, and a legislator with influence gets their child or relative or friend or donor’s friend in, then that’s not right,” Patrick said. “That can bring down the whole law school.”
Watchdog.org requested the LSAT scores of 122 UT Law students from four other public law schools in Texas, figuring that most people apply to more than one law school.
We obtained scores for 47 people from the other schools, almost all of them with names redacted. Only six of the 47 scores were above 160.
The average high score for the applicants on our lists was 149.7, which is barely good enough for the worst law schools in the country. Even schools like Whittier Law College and Golden Gate University School of Law, which put less than a fifth of their graduates into full-time jobs, expect most of their class to have scores above 150.
A few commenters attacked Watchdog.org’s recent report on the political connections of dozens of students who had failed the bar exam at least twice in recent years, on the grounds that bar failure didn’t prove that the student had poor LSAT scores. The argument, in other words, is that just because somebody failed the bar (twice) doesn’t mean he didn’t deserve his place at UT.
These LSAT scores, however, prove just that. Almost every score we got was somewhere between borderline and horrendous.
There were 18-24 scores below 150 and five to six scores below 140. Because the names were blacked out, we had to assume that a 137 on Texas Tech’s list, for example, might be the same person who got a 137 on Texas Southern University’s list.
The 122 names we requested came from a database we built to tally the number of times UT Law grads had failed the bar. We requested the LSAT scores of the 90 Longhorns who failed the bar two or more times from 2006-2013. We figured that their struggles to pass the bar — 42 of them never passed — made them the most likely candidates to have benefited from favoritism.
We requested the scores of 26 others who passed the bar on a second try, who also either shared a last name with a lawmaker or who had already attained a high-level government job.
Then we picked six current UT Law students, five for no reason other than to obscure our interest in the sixth: Jonathan Seliger, son of state Sen. Kel Seliger, who is chairman of the Higher Education Committee. (We have no reason to doubt Seliger’s qualifications, other than his father’s position and the general pattern of legislative influence on admissions.)
If we could have predicted our scores would be provided without names attached, we would have asked just for the 90 double flunkies, so as not to contaminate our failure pool with success. All six of the scores of 160 or better might well have come from Seliger and his classmates, who have yet to take the bar.
While conventional wisdom holds that LSAT and other standardized test scores are private under federal law, the conventional wisdom is mistaken. The Family Education Rights Privacy Act, or FERPA, only applies to applicants’ records once they “matriculate” at a school. If they never attend, their test scores never become private under federal law (grades, however, remain private).
State law generally treats education records identically to federal law. Texas A&M complied with the presumption of openness in state law and turned over five scores with names, one of which happened to be James Ryan Pitts, son of the state House Appropriations Committee chairman.
Texas Tech, the University of Houston, and Texas Southern University all appealed our request to Attorney General Greg Abbott, whose office decided that the U.S. Constitution provides a right to take these standardized tests anonymously.
Then Abbott apparently changed his mind on Monday, but Texas Tech and TSU had already shared the scores.
Since the names were blacked out, we have no way of confirming that every score comes from the person we requested, or that none came from someone with an identical name. We did provide middle names to all the schools, and birth dates and partial Social Security numbers to the schools that requested them.
Although it’s impossible to say conclusively from this sample whether affirmative action is a factor, as opposed to favoritism to a politician or a donor to UT’s Law School Foundation, we can say that the demographics of our list roughly reflect the state’s demographics.
Of the 122 names, 47 were Hispanic; the state’s Hispanic population is 35 percent of the total. Fourteen students applied to TSU, a historically black college. In inspecting 90 of the applicants more closely for our political favoritism story, we only noticed a handful of African Americans.
Contact Jon Cassidy at firstname.lastname@example.org or @jpcassidy000. If you would like to send him documents or messages anonymously, download the Tor browser and go to our SecureDrop submission page: http://5bygo7e2rpnrh5vo.onion